The Running Commentary Column from the April 1980 issue of the Socialist Standard
Betting on ill-health
While some workers fatalistically accept their position in society as preordained (“if it was meant to be, there’s nothing you can do about it”), others consider their status to be largely determined by luck or, more accurately, the lack of it. That capitalism is a game of chance is true only to the extent that those born into the ruling class (odds of about 20-1 against) have a distinct advantage over the rest of us.
This emphasis on luck as the prime mover in human affairs received some support last month. In Britain the Tories, having slashed (no jokes about “wets” and cabinet leaks) public spending dramatically in the last ten months were busy getting their Health Services Bill through committee stage. This is intended to give public health authorities the legal right to raise money through bingo, rummy, find-the-lady and other such games of chance, as recommended in the philosophical writings of F. A. Hayek and Milton Friedman. Now while health, like every service under capitalism, is viewed principally with cost rather than human considerations in mind (you've got to have heart, but not if it’s too expensive), it is doubtful whether, say, cancer treatment has before now had to depend in part upon punters’ stake money.
A cheaper way of financing health services suggested itself in reports of goings on at a hospital in that home of free enterprise, the United States. A group of employees in the intensive care ward of the Sunrise Hospital in Las Vegas were suspended for placing bets on how long terminally ill cancer patients would live. This wagering was thought to have led to the premature deaths of at least six people, with oxygen supplies and life support systems tampered with to rig the stakes in favour of heavy wagers (Daily Telegraph 14.3.80).
Now while these two examples of private enterprise in action may not appeal to everyone as solutions to capitalism’s problems, they do have the advantage of being less of a burden on the ruling class. If only workers’ flutters paid for all public services or Littlewood’s prize winners could be persuaded to contribute to the genetic engineering of success, wouldn’t everyone be happy? Unfortunately not; the odds are permanently fixed against wage and salary earners, in health services as in all things, and the chances of any government running the profit system in the interest of human beings are approximately nil.
Connoisseurs of graffiti must be suffering slightly from withdrawal symptoms if London’s tube walls are anything to go by. For no longer are those underwear ads covered exclusively with “Hang Nixon”, “West Ham Aggro” or “This Exploits Women”—what appears to be demented doctors’ prescriptions, all squigglcs and dots in the wrong places, have taken over. This phenomenon looks like continuing for some while, for after Iran it looks like Saudi Arabia is next on the agenda.
The autocratic rulers of what is, calculated per head of population, the richest country in the world are facing problems similar in many respects to those experienced by the ex-Shah of Iran. In the past year the iron grip of the Saud tribe has come under increasing pressure, both internally and from leftist forces in the Arab and Third World. A growing number of new generation Saudis, generously educated at overseas universities paid for by oil revenue, are returning home and questioning traditional Muslim values. A ruling class that can delay the opening of a multi-million pound government office block because its layout included unisex lifts, and that puts to the sword members of its own family found guilty of adultery can hardly expect the support of those educated in the “liberal” West. One consequence of this conflict between old and new is that an estimated 4,000 princes are jockeying for position should the House of Saud begin to crumble.
Saudi Arabia’s ruling class is so rich that it could buy all the shares quoted on the London Stock Exchange in eighteen months, or all the gold in Central Banks in five years. Increasing alignment with the West, manifested in enormous IMF deposits, places it in the dock as far as poorer neighbours are concerned. Its military development programme, presently nearing completion and costing £20 million may be a sound financial investment—but then military might alone was not enough to keep the Shah on his throne.
Crown Prince Fahd said fifteen months ago: “If Iran goes, then God help us all”. No longer able to rely upon her neighbours to act as a buffer against “communism”, capitalism’s richest prize is attracting the benign, full-time attention of the CIA and western intelligence services. For if Saudi Arabia “goes”, not only will the Saud tribe suffer but the oil dependent states of the West will feel the cold.
A small revolt by a number of Tory MPs took place in the House of Commons, although the Government carried the day on a free vote.
Our readers might be forgiven for thinking that the revolt is hardly surprising. After all, the Tories came to power on election promises of lower taxes and reducing inflation. There are now nearly 2 million unemployed; money available for schools, health services and housing has been greatly reduced; other amenities have been pared down. However, the slight reductions in income tax have been swallowed up by record inflation and mortgage rates, even for the better off, so-called “upper middle class” who benefitted most from the tax changes.
However, it seems that the MPs who did not support the government may have had a better appreciation of the workings of the capitalist system than they are usually credited with. Their revolt was against the bringing of pressure to bear on British athletes to “volunteer” to withdraw ‘from the Olympic Games in Moscow. (Government representatives meeting in Geneva to discuss possible alternative Games appear ignorant of the fact that 12 months' notice of such intentions must be given to the World Amateur Athletics Association, whose permission is mandatory for athletes wishing to compete in international Games.)
The Tory MPs (led by Mr. Terence Higgins, Conservative Member for Worthing) who opposed the Government’s stand, pointed out that the call to athletes to withdraw from the Games rings false while, far from even token withdrawal of diplomatic representation or recommendation of curtailment of trade, the government are actively assisting large-scale deals on machinery to go through. The obvious conclusion (to a socialist) is that Olympic athletes are unpaid amateurs, and even the possibility of a gold medal brings only “glory”, while commercial deals make profits. The fact that many athletes have trained for years to compete in the supposedly non-political Games counts for nothing compared with the ringing of cash registers. Dare we hope that this is an encouraging sign that some Tory MPs are not too brainwashed to see this?